<< Hall v. Florida Impact: 20 Cases? | Main | House Hearing on Federal Criminal Penalties >>


Why Wasn't Plumhoff v. Rickard a Summary Reversal?

| 0 Comments
Although Hall v. Florida got most of the attention yesterday, the Supreme Court also decided two cases in favor of the police, both unanimous at least in part.

Plumhoff v. Rickard involves the police's use of deadly force against someone who led them on a high-speed chase over 100 miles an hour and continued trying to escape even after the police had him cornered.  There are several holdings worth noting.
A denial of qualified immunity is immediately appealable.  I thought that was settled long ago, but the panel of the Sixth Circuit that ruled on this initially was sufficiently confused to get it wrong, then reconsidered.  The Supreme Court affirmed the jurisdiction once again.

The police's use of deadly force in these circumstances did not violate the Fourth Amendment, eight Justices said.  Justice Ginsburg did not join this part of the opinion, but she did not write a dissent either.  All nine agreed that the plaintiff's claim of a Fourth Amendment violation is not supported by clearly established law, so the officers would have had qualified immunity anyway.

The fact that the Court reached and resolved the underlying Fourth Amendment question and established a precedent on it illustrates that motions to suppress evidence are not the only way to make Fourth Amendment law.  Advocates of the exclusionary rule claim that need as one of the reasons why murderers should go free when constables blunder.  But we already have enough search-and-seizure cases to fill a 6-volume treatise, and civil suits such as this one can fill in remaining blanks and address issues arising from new technology.

As explained in the opinion, in light of the prior Supreme Court car-chase case of Scott v. Harris it is clear enough that there was no Fourth Amendment violation on the straight merits of the case, and it is virtually beyond dispute that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.  (Incredibly, the Sixth Circuit panel opinion does not even mention the "clearly established law" standard for qualified immunity and displays no awareness of it.) 

So why wasn't this a summary reversal?

The docket shows that the case was on the conference list five times, and the fifth time the Court decided to take the case up for full briefing and argument.  I suspect the question was whether to summarily reverse on qualified immunity, summarily reverse on both merits and immunity, or take the case for briefing and argument.  I further suspect that some on the Court wanted to summarily reverse on qualified immunity and be done with it, while others wanted to resolve the underlying merits question.  Some, at least, thought the merits question was not clear enough for summary disposition.  That's my speculation, but of course we will not know for a long time.

Update: Richard Re has this post on Plumhoff and Wood titled "When To Reach The Merits In Qualified Immunity Cases."

Leave a comment

Monthly Archives